A Russian armored column entered Grozny, the besieged Chechen capital, late today but ran into fierce opposition from Chechen defenders in the first major battle in the city since Russian forces launched a powerful offensive in the separatist southern region three months ago.
As Russian artillery units pounded Chechen positions just outside he city center with rocket salvos, about 2,000 Chechen rebels poured fire into the advancing Russians with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, according to a Reuters news service reporter at the scene.
The three-hour battle left more than 100 Russian soldiers dead, said Reuters reporter Maria Eismont. The Associated Press reported that the bodies of at least several dead Russians had been seen.
Russian troops were similarly stymied and ambushed by Chechen rebels in Grozny in a New Year's Day assault five years ago, when the Kremlin first tried to crush a Chechen drive for independence from Moscow. More than 1,000 Russian troops died in that attack, and until today it had appeared that Russian commanders were trying to avoid another head-on conflict in the capital.
Several thousand armed rebels reportedly are now dug-in amid rubble left by heavy Russian shelling of Grozny, and the advancing Russian troops apparently lost their way and became confused, making it easier for the rebels to attack, according to the AP.
The battle occurred about two miles from the center of the capital, which has been under nearly constant Russian artillery and aerial attack in recent weeks. According to Eismont's account, Chechen militiaman posted in other parts of the city volunteered to assist in today's engagement, but their offer was declined by those involved, saying they needed no help.
Moscow, which has sent nearly 100,000 troops to Chechnya to try to reclaim the breakaway region, says its forces have surrounded the capital and have begun to advance into a more mountainous region south of Grozny, where Chechen militia groups had retreated as government troops occupied the northern part of the territory.
But Grozny remains a key battleground, and Russian authorities had warned all civilians remaining there to flee or suffer the consequences of all-out war. Nevertheless, thousands of people--elderly, infirm and women and children--are still hiding in basements, afraid to flee because of the Russian bombardments.
In Moscow today, a top Russian general promised that Grozny would not be stormed. Gen. Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the general staff told foreign military attaches: "I would like to announce officially that there will be neither strikes, nor storming operations nor any large-scale actions against Grozny," he said. "There will be none as long as at least one civilian remains there."
However, Manilov predicted that Grozny would be taken within days, and that "it will take another two or three months, including December" to completely defeat armed Chechen resisters, who he estimated number 12,000 to 15,000. "This terrorist army will have to be eliminated unless the bandits surrender and lay down their arms," he said.
Raids by Chechen Islamic militiamen into the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan in August brought retaliatory Russian attacks; subsequent terrorist bombings of several Russian apartment buildings that Moscow blamed on Chechen militants triggered the full-scale offensive.
Earlier today, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov renewed his appeals to Moscow for a negotiated end to the fighting through European mediators, but Moscow rejected any talks, except on the issue of humanitarian aid to refugees. Maskhadov told the Interfax news agency that he had invited the acting chairman of the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Knut Vollebaek, to meet with him, and Vollebaek is said to be preparing to enter the Russian-controlled portion of Chechnya on Thursday.
"If Europe is concerned about the future of the Chechen people, who have found themselves on the brink of physical annihilation, the OSCE chairman must listen not only to the side bombing peaceful cities and villages, but also to the Chechen president," Maskhadov said. Maskhadov said also that Chechnya is ready to make "serious compromises that suit both sides and taking into account the interests of Russia as a world power."
But Russian Gen. Manilov said that conditions for negotiations had not been created. Maskhadov cannot negotiate "until he disassociates himself from terrorists and bandits, from their bloody business," Manilov said. Interfax also quoted other Russian sources as saying Moscow would not negotiate with Maskhadov through international agencies.
"The problem is not that there are no mediators, but that there are no Chechen representatives with whom negotiations might be conducted," an unnamed Russian official was quoted as saying by Interfax. The official said Russian statements about negotiation applied only to organizing "safe corridors" for Chechen civilians to flee the embattled capital.
CAPTION: A Chechen boy wearing shoes 10 times too large for him confronts a Russian soldier whose unit was searching for armed rebels in a village southeast of Grozny.